The trusting, often intimate, relationship between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, including their shared remorse over the death of the Princess of Wales, is revealed in transcripts of conversations between the two leaders, under a freedom of information request.
The redacted transcripts of conversations covering 1997 to 2000, when Clinton was standing down as US president, offer an insight into the transatlantic “special relationship” at its zenith and also the strong personal relations between two pioneers of “third way” politics. Blair calls Clinton mate, and Clinton refers to Blair as bud.
Some of the discussions about ensuring UN weapons inspectors got full access to presumed sites of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were a precursor to later talks with George Bush, which led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
One of the most striking moments is a phone call the day after Diana’s fatal car crash in Paris in the summer of 1997. Blair had by then delivered his “people’s princess” eulogy, and he told Clinton that her death was “like a star falling”.
According to the transcripts released to the BBC the two men each expressed their fears for Diana’s children, especially Prince William. “She was such a rock of stability in the sense she connected them with the outside world,” Blair said. “The eldest boy, William, is quite like her in a way, he is very ‘feet on the ground’, he does things kids his age do. She was not the royal family but she was liked by ordinary people, it gave her problems with the royal establishment.”
“I just feel so bad for her,” Clinton replied. “She was just basically getting a hold of her life.”
Blair explained: “The problem was the way she lived, in a press frenzy. It’s impossible to contemplate how intrusive it was, into every single aspect of her life. The last time I spoke with her, she said that were it not for the boys, she’d be off the board. The country is stunned.”
He said reports he had received suggested that photographers had jumped on her as they left a hotel in Paris: “ I can’t believe some of the reports of how fast they were going though. It’s just not possible they were going 100 mph, I mean I know Paris. They wouldn’t have to be going that fast in those tunnels, though. They must have hit a rim in the road and turned over and smashed into a wall.”
At one point Clinton said Blair still had choirboy looks, and reflected on losing touch with a younger generation saying: “You don’t even think about it, and then you turn around and it’s been a year since you’ve talked to anyone who is 25.”
They also discussed the film Saving Private Ryan, and considered their success, with Clinton saying: “The longer you hang around this business, it becomes apparent that very few people make it this far by accident. They don’t just give these jobs away.”
The intimacy of the relationship shines through. They called each other bud and send messages of affection to their wives.
Clinton described at length a lunch he had with the Russian president Boris Yeltsin. “He served roast pig and told me real men hack off the ears and eat them. And once he served 24 courses, including moose lips.” Clinton repeatedly expressed his admiration for Yeltsin, but said: “My relationship … is such that all [Yeltsin’s] hardliners believe I could talk to [him] and get him to sell the oil wells for three dollars and a half, but that’s not true. He’s just more far-sighted and progressive than they are.”
In the spring of 2000 with a fourth child on the way Blair described how his wife, Cherie, was “in great form but just keeps getting bigger and bigger”. Clinton offered to babysit and Blair replied, “right, Bill, we’ll put you down on the babysitting list now, mate”.
Clinton also suggested Blair made him a UK citizen and let him run for parliament in Scotland “next door to a good golf course”.
They both expressed their frustration with the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, with Clinton saying at one point “we’ve all taken our licks for Gerry”. He also queried Adams’ relationship with the IRA admitting: “I don’t know what the real deal is between him and the IRA. It’s hard to put pressure on him when you don’t know what’s going on. It’s just bizarre.”
Clinton promised to help Blair with the peace process saying “Oh god yes. This is the place in the world where there is the largest disconnect between the leaders and what the ordinary people want.”
Clinton also discussed his approach to the EU saying: “What I need to do is stay on my general theme that you can’t create jobs without reform, but you don’t have to cut out the social safety net.” He added: “That is what your election showed.”
The two men also talked about the risks with Iraq saying: “If people knew how many weapons Unscom inspectors have exposed they would understand why this is so important.” Clinton said he was under pressure to act against Saddam Hussein.
Blair at one point stated: “Our public opinion is not the same as yours but we are working hard to educate the public. We put out a white paper yesterday on Iraq’s WMD programmes. We have to educate international opinion so they see the real threat and choices we face.”
Blair also confided that he had tough battles ahead on welfare, and Clinton replied: “I think you’re doing the right thing: as long as you have the muscle and juice, go ahead and go.” Blair said: “Well that’s what I reckon. Anyway, we are testing this theory to destruction!”
Clinton ruminated on the growing threat of stateless terrorism saying: “We’re going to increasingly have to deal with terrorists with no ties to any nation state, including Iran, if the precedent there keeps on track. But in the case of a lot of Middle East and African countries we could be dealing with these people, like in those old James Bond movies with Spectre and Dr No. We’re going to have a 21st century version of those.”
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